Lunchtable TV Talk: People meet… what comes next?

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With the ever-expanding variety of TV-style content available at the ready, old themes are taking on new polish. It’s no secret that storytelling is becoming more nuanced and diverse, and storytellers are becoming freer to tell their stories without the constraints of things like network TV schedules and limitations, demands for typical romantic sitcom tropes or pandering to certain audience demographics. Within this landscape, different kinds of romantic comedies are finding their “hour upon the loom of days” (cannot resist, however inappropriate the tone, an Ezra Pound reference…).

In the middle of these emotional days, I watched the widely praised little comedy, Catastrophe, which chronicles the accidental relationship borne of an accidental pregnancy resulting from a casual one-week fling. The couple decide to make a go of it, with the American half of the couple moving to London to pursue a relationship with the Irish woman he’s knocked up. I won’t heap rosy praise on it (other viewers have done this enough), but I will concede that it can be quite funny and “real” in ways that most sitcoms laboring under this premise could not be.

Given my state of mind, though, it mostly made me sad and reflective. Thinking about how people meet and what propels their relationships forward. How is it that they decide, “This is what I want. This is the person I want to be with”? It would be easy to say that the characters here chose to be together only because the woman was pregnant, neither party to the couple is particularly young and perhaps neither felt they had much to lose. The show did a good job at making the relationship feel more deliberate than that by highlighting the doubts and fears the characters felt – particularly the woman. The man seems quite sure (and reassuring) and never strays from this underlying conviction, even when friends, family and circumstance try to convince him otherwise.

Perhaps it was his commitment and willingness to work at it and to “put up or shut up”, in a sense, that struck me.

Overall, Catastrophe, despite having a few semi-crass jokes and whatnot, is sweet and gives the viewer a palette on which it creates two whole, three-dimensional adults who find themselves in a surprising situation. How people deal with the unplanned is telling.

The unplanned and unpleasant drives another surprisingly sweet (and short) sitcom, Scrotal Recall, which, despite its raunchy name, is both worth watching and not at all what you think it is. It follows (without bothering about chronology) the story of a guy who discovers he has an STI and needs to inform all his previous sex partners. The show finds its comedy not just in the awkwardness of trying to break the news (“Hey, sorry you’ve not heard from me in a year, but congrats! You may have chlamydia!”) but in the retelling of the stories that led the character to get into all these sexual situations in the first place. Bubbling along in parallel with these flashbacks is the ongoing, years-long tension between the main character and his friend/roommate (the old story about close friends of the opposite sex – one has a crush on the other but is scared to say or one of them has a relationship already so the timing is off… and the timing always seems to be off. It’s another version of Ross and Rachel but … cuter and less important to the storytelling). In fact, Vox compares the show to How I Met Your Mother without the irritating pomposity of Ted and without the sociopathic tendencies of Barney. I agree but add that it is much more relatable and less formulaic, and actually, in its own slightly bumbling way, quite sweet.

While this pair of sitcoms (both with roots in the UK) resides at the “sweet/nice” end of the spectrum, it stands to reason that there would be similarly angled sitcoms at the other end. That is, sitcoms that go against the grain, challenge one’s perception of a “relationship” or “dating” comedy. (This does not take into account recent takes on the ennui of marriage, such as Togetherness or Married, neither of which is perfect but both of which finally do away with some of the stupid/schlub husband + hot wife making fun of him trope that has long populated the mainstream TV landscape.)

Perhaps most routinely misanthropic and sometimes annoying but nevertheless funny and human is You’re the Worst, in which two young… let’s call a spade a spade here… assholes hook up after getting drunk at a wedding. They are both firmly convinced that they are not relationship material, commitment phobic and perfectly happy with a casual, no-strings setup. But most of the first season is spent making us – and them – realize that they’ve been wrong. It’s a little bit cliche when you write down the premise, but the execution makes it what it is. I honestly did not think I would like it. The advertising I saw surrounding the show struck me a lot like the Comedy Central advertising for Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer. The ads made these shows look offensively bad (not in a good way), while in fact, both are genius. You’re the Worst won’t make any “genius” lists, but despite it being ages ago that I consumed the first season, I remember a few gems that pulled me in – from the Phil “Groovy” Collins v Peter Gabriel argument between the show’s leads to the “Sunday Funday” (although if I recall these were in the same episode, and I think the guy who plays Pied Piper CEO Richard in the brilliant Silicon Valley plays one of the poseur-follower idiots copying the Sunday Funday). At its heart, the show does display two people who are actually the worst (you would hate these people if you knew them in real life) but find each other, defend each other, fall in love with each other… and I suppose that things boil down to that kind of cliche. We go through life hoping to find that person we can relate to, be completely our ugly selves with and land, as someone once said to me in better times, “land in the tall grass”.

On an entirely different plane, particularly as it borrows liberally from fantasy and the grotesque rather than grounding itself in reality, Man Seeking Woman explores the dating life of a single guy after a breakup. On one of his first post-breakup outings he meets a woman who is portrayed – literally – as a troll. In another episode, he is invited to his ex-girlfriend’s party to find that she is dating Hitler. Yes, that Hitler. He is not dead and has just been hanging out/hiding out, is ancient and rolling around in a wheelchair. Each episode ups the ante with this surreal take on the world, with one equating marriage with a prison sentence – you become a useful penis in the suburbs with a drill sergeant wife – life sentence without possibility of parole. Some insights shine through the absurd concepts and visuals, even if some things go too over the top for me. The absurdity, though, almost always serves to channel some more basic truths: the concept of remaining friends with members of the opposite sex once you have moved on and how partners may have different rules for that depending on the relationship, the nature of marriage, the cocoon-like pod people that new couples become and much more along the same lines.

The Call of the Millennial – The Rebel Yell?

Apart from the aforementioned Catastrophe, which features basically middle-aged people, the other shows and television in general have been flooded with shows featuring millennials on the hunt – for fun, for sex, for love, for drugs, for something. Sometimes they don’t even know what they are looking for but find something anyway. Perhaps this aimless search is how and why these shows work. Familiar themes explored through a new lens – but with a slightly rebellious twist?

Lunchtable TV talk – HAPPYish: “Everyone’s f—ed and they don’t even know…”

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Apparently, HAPPYish on Showtime was meant to be a vehicle for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s boundless talents before his untimely death. The usually entertaining (in that obnoxious, this-rubs-me-the-wrong-way-but-I’m-still-laughing manner) Steve Coogan stepped in.

I don’t think it’s Coogan’s fault that the material feels tired, overworked, too much overprivileged middle-aged man at odds with the changing world. Coogan’s character is a senior ad exec, and much like Don Draper in Mad Men, he finds that the changing media landscape and its youth-oriented sensibilities seem to be moving on without him – even if those movements are actually illogical, loss-making bullshit. Coogan is the voice of reason but no one is listening. He’s struck by malaise – unable to be effective at work and unable to be particularly effective in his marriage. He can’t sexually perform, he tells his eager wife (Kathryn Hahn) that Prozac has robbed him of his libido but without Prozac he’d basically be horny but a miserable prick. The first episode makes Hahn seem like she is not able to say much aside from some variation of, “Are we gonna fuck (or not)?” And we were led to believe that men had the one-track minds.

The second episode focused more on Hahn’s troubled relationship with her unseen mother and her internal struggle about whether or not she should return a giant package her mother sent for her grandson. Somehow the parental conflict we don’t see just feels petty and Hahn’s character petulant and self-indulgent because we don’t really know the context. I normally like Hahn (she’s great in both Parks and Recreation and Transparent) but the writing and story here does not suit Hahn and seemingly does not suit anyone who is in this show – and there are a lot of names popping up, but everyone seems awkward.

Part of the problem, apart from trying too hard, is that we have little pieces of this same show already done better in other shows. We have the ad man-out-of-time in Mad Men. We have the hilarious parody of an industry that often seems to be blowing itself and praising its own insular nature at the expense of reality in Silicon Valley. We have the married-life rut and suburban ennui done to perfection in Togetherness. Like most critics, I think we don’t need another TV show about a dissatisfied but mostly spoiled middle-aged white dude complaining about everything he doesn’t have.

Do yourself a favor and watch those shows – not this one.

“Everyone’s fucked and they don’t even know…”

Lunchtable TV Talk – Togetherness: The ark of the ache of it

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The ache of marriage
-Denise Levertov

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

Today is my parents’ wedding anniversary. I spend a lot of time thinking about marriage as an institution. It is not something I ever really wanted, and as I have become older, it seems less than desirable and more of the “ball and chain” that it’s classically described as. Not being a religious person or in need of some kind of monetary or tax benefits that might come from legal marriage – and not being particularly sentimental – marriage is not a priority. That said, I also think a lot about marriage and the equality of access to it. If someone – anyone – wants to marry, s/he should be legally permitted to.

Fie on Love
-James Shirley

Now, fie on foolish love! it not befits
Or man or woman know it:
Love was not meant for people in their wits;
And they that fondly show it,
Betray the straw and feathers in their brain,
And shall have Bedlam for their pain.
If single love be such a curse,
To marry, is to make it ten times worse.

But then, I see a nuanced TV show like HBO’s Togetherness and wonder why anyone would want to sign up for marriage. The ache of marriage is fully alive here. I wasn’t totally into the idea of Togetherness when I read about it. It sounded like an unfolding tableau of overprivileged ennui, as middle-class midlife boredom clashes with midlife identity crisis. People stop being individuals, give up on their dreams, are stuck in the humdrum of daily life. This is at the heart of Togetherness, and could easily have been either as dull as HBO’s Looking or as self-indulgent and preachy as the recent miniseries The Slap. But Togetherness walks the tightrope and avoids conventional appearances – largely because of its cast, and the handling of its creators, the seemingly ubiquitous Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, and Steve Zissis. It could easily sink to a whiny, pretentious semi-sitcom focused on a 30-something married couple with two small children. They seem to have everything a young couple, Brett and Michelle (Mark Duplass and a transcendent Melanie Lynskey) could want – the marriage, the happy family, the house and the white picket fence. Against this “stable background”, Brett’s best friend (an out-of-work, down-on-his luck actor, Alex, played by Steve Zissis) and Michelle’s sister (Tina, an event planner, played by Amanda Peet) both move into Brett and Michelle’s place temporarily, and this change seemingly upends the bored equilibrium Brett and Michelle have settled into.

Both “sides” see the beauty of the other side. Alex and Tina, who have a really powerful chemistry but keep denying it, represent the initial spark we all recognize that comes from the beginning of a relationship and envy what Brett and Michelle have – but only because they are not trapped by the constraints. Brett and Michelle envy the freedom Alex and Tina have, and start to search outside the relationship for diversions – not necessarily diversions that lead them to infidelity. But just other entertainment, other sparks, ways to find their way back to who they used to be before middle-aged family life.

The bottom line, what I took away, what Togetherness imparts, with some humor and humanity, is that whether or not we are “together” with someone, we are still alone. We swallow so much of ourselves, not because someone else forces us to, but because we let some of ourselves go naturally with the march of daily responsibility and priorities. In following this path, sometimes when we are together with someone, we are more alone than ever.

“Together Alone” – Crowded House